New animal health practices are helping farmers reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock farming, while also protecting overall food safety.
We all want to make healthy food choices, not only to fuel our busy lifestyles but also to make a positive impact on environmental sustainability and animal well-being.
Yet with so many food choices available today, it can get confusing, especially if you’re using food labels to decide what to add to your grocery cart.
High quality animal-based proteins — such as beef, pork, eggs, poultry and dairy — are an important part of a nutritious, balanced diet. However, you may have concerns about antibiotics given to animals and the impact on your health and the environment.
It’s important to know that all meat, poultry and dairy foods sold in the U.S. are free of antibiotic residues, as required by federal law — whether or not the food is labeled "no antibiotics."
Remember, food labels are about marketing, not about food safety, says Dr. Kristen Obbink, a veterinarian and assistant director of the National Institute of Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education based at Iowa State University in Ames.
“We have the safest food supply in the world,” Obbink says. “We have very safe food, and using antibiotics responsibly and keeping our animals healthy are important to farmers and veterinarians.”
Just like how we may need antibiotics to recover from a sinus infection or strep throat, sometimes farmers must use antibiotics to treat farm animals that get sick. Livestock farmers consult with their veterinarians to determine the best treatment, Obbink says.
“When our animals get sick, we do need to be able to treat them,” she continues. “That’s not a good quality of life for that animal if they are having to live with an illness and we can’t treat it.”
Research also shows that healthy animals result in safer food, Obbink says.
In addition, because of improved animal health practices, livestock farmers are producing more using fewer natural resources than at any time in history.
For example, pig farmers have reduced their carbon footprint by 7.7% since the 1960s thanks to advancements in genetics, animal nutrition and overall pig care, according to the National Pork Board.
A new report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows progress in reducing antibiotic use in livestock farming.
The FDA reports that sales and distribution of all medically important antimicrobials, or those important to human health, for food-producing animals increased 9% in 2018, but were down 21% since 2009, when the FDA first started reporting sales data.
Since 2015, sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials for food-producing animals have dropped 38%, the FDA reported.
It’s a significant decline and shows that farmers and their veterinarians have made responsible use of antibiotics a priority, Obbink says.
“Farmers want to do the right thing,” Obbink says. “They truly care about their animals and the food that they produce. Their families eat that food too. We all want animals to be cared for appropriately and with good welfare and safe and healthy food in the process.”
A new FDA rule enacted in 2017 limits the use of medically important antimicrobials in livestock farming.
Under the new rule, farmers can only use medically important antibiotics for animal disease prevention, treatment and control with a veterinarian’s approval and oversight, Obbink explains.
In addition, the FDA worked with animal drug manufacturers to discontinue the use of medically important antimicrobials for animal growth promotion or feed efficiency.
If a farm animal does get sick and needs antibiotics, farmers must follow strict FDA guidelines for the proper dosage, duration and withdrawal time — or the time between when the animal is treated and when it goes to market, Obbink explains.
As an added layer of protection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture samples meat and poultry products to ensure they are free of antibiotic residues.
In the very rare case when a product tests positive for antibiotic residues, it is removed from the food supply chain and never goes to market, Obbink explains.
Farmers continue to work closely with their veterinarians to protect animal health and overall food safety, using the latest science to guide herd health decisions, Obbink says.
Researchers are discovering new ways — such as improved animal-care practices, vaccines and strict biosecurity protocols — to help keep animals healthy so they don’t need antibiotics in the first place, Obbink says.
Farmers and veterinarians are also exploring alternatives to antibiotics, such as probiotics in animal feed, she says.
“We have made great progress, particularly in the last couple years. This is definitely an area that a lot of research and education efforts are being put into,” Obbink says.
Consumers also have a role to play in protecting food safety. To ensure that meat and poultry products are safe to eat, follow the basic steps for safely preparing foods: clean, separate, cook and chill.
Make sure to use clean utensils and cooking surfaces when cooking. Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. Cook to a food-safe temperature. And chill leftovers within two hours.
In addition, be sure to wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before and after handling food.